Seemingly customary now to this rendition, the Phoenix Suns were behind the proverbial 8-ball to open out the gate in opening this series.
As in round one, the offense wasn’t the issue early in the series, it was their defensive connectivity and consistency in that.
In terms of net rating - and mainly due to the defensive side (defensive rating of 127.6) - the Suns registered their team-worst mark, at -17.2.
That was compounded by other game dynamics that were in their control.
Let’s dive into what caught my attention.
1.) Defensive Woes
The Suns had a troublesome stretch of struggles solving the Rubik’s cube that is the Denver Nuggets offense.
Solace can be found in the Suns solving plenty of their issues by better applying themselves - in multiple efforts - particularly on the defensive glass, to stamp an end to possessions (and not affording Denver so many - 17, to be exact - more shots on goal).
Let’s start with the defense on Jamal Murray - the main pressure point for the Nuggets attack in game one.
He would register his second-best points per shot mark (1.33) of these playoffs, while simultaneously operating at 1.47 points per possession pace when initiating in pick-and-roll.
The Suns had issues with their process and coverage against him.
Let’s start here:
The foundation of re-inserting Okogie into the starting lineup (which I feel was apt and appropriate) was to attach him to Jamal Murray as much as possible, for his point-of-attack activity, physicality, and tone-setting ways to have an effect on Murray’s flow — mucking up actions involving him.
To so easily detach him from his primary matchup, off a simple touch screen early in the shot clock and without any hesitation, is adverse to the gameplan process-wise.
If not for his defense particularly against Murray this series, what is the most effective purpose Okogie can have for the Suns in this high-scoring affair?
Keeping him attached to Murray more often and more stubbornly moving forward will go a long way in addressing how easily he got going early.
That, plus having Ayton closer to the level of the screen.
The pace at which Murray moves, aided by a solid screen from Jokic, and Ayton being in a drop (with an empty side of the floor even more) enables Murray to get downhill off the pick, then stretch Ayton in his drop to force a late-switch between he and Okogie.
Ayton can hold his own in space, but this is very much a passive-defensive context here, being in drop at its initiation.
The space conceded is unable to be made up for, as Murray is enabled and enticed to lead the dance, to which he obliges and leaves Ayton guessing when and what is next.
These are the perils you render yourself to when playing drop coverage against one of the better shot-makers in the NBA, and one of the better pick-and-roll initiators.
You must play a dictating style of coverage, whether that be up to touch then getting into a drop, flat hedging, blitzing, or... keeping a solid blend of all three coverages, keeping Murray guessing (!!!).
We’d see more here.
Drop plus a lack of staying attached from Shamet enable Murray to play with freedom of movement, again in an emptied side of the floor with real estate to use, and now he’s well within rhythm.
More downhill enabling here:
Again, the passive defensive coverage enables even a brush screen from Jokic - making no contact with Okogie, just enabling Murray downhill leverage - springboards Murray into the mid-range, undeterred, for two.
Lastly, one final scoring rep in pick-and-roll displayed the lack of connectivity and feel:
Notice Okogie ducking under the initial screen in this double drag rep. Also, notice the space conceded in doing so.
These are surefire ways to get burned, especially when a prolific scorer has it going in flow.
Okogie has to close the air space and also fight over, or, if the Suns want to ‘weak’ this rep - keeping Murray funneled to his left hand - Okogie as well as Paul need to be closer in proximity to each other, and Murray.
These coverage slippages, botches, and the general passive coverage with Ayton in a drop more often than not led to the barrage of “Murray Flurry” buckets that put the Suns behind off approach to defense alone.
Playing a dictating style of defense - especially having a stubborn and active point-of-attack defender in Okogie in the starting lineup (optimizing your defensive asset) while also enabling Ayton to be more involved with activity independent of guarding Jokic — in a blend of coverages — will be a key adjustment to make.
Durant (3 blocks) was also not only brought in to score and infuse the offense with juice, but to also help to enable more aggressive defensive schemes — independent of just switching at a higher volume.
Many teams would love to have multiple, versatile, seven-footers with wide-ranging wingspans at their defensive disposal — especially on the playoffs stage.
Putting your chess pieces in a position to dictate to their opponents, again in a blend of coverages, is the outlet to best-defending the high-octane Nuggets.
Chaos-inducing defense was at the foundation of the Suns successes in round one, and I'm expecting the Suns to have rolling coverages as a main part of the group of adjustments for them in game two.
It’s rooted in mindset but would parlay into the in-game chess that needs to take place, which is what the Nuggets are doing to the Suns on the other end in pick-and-roll.
2.) Rebounding and Turnovers
It is one thing to force a team to miss initial shots, it’s another thing — rooted in mindset and want to — to pursue the basketball, as a group, and terminate an opponent's possession.
This entity of defense was lacking in far too many moments and compromised them at the most inopportune times.
Rebounding, as also in game one against the Clippers in the first round, was an issue in game one of this series.
The Suns conceded 12 second-chance possessions to the Nuggets, leading to 14 points.
Conceding that many extra shots to a team that scores at as prolific of a rate as you do, in addition to 14 live ball turnovers, is fatal in the postseason.
Denver took 17 more shots than the Suns, and that math is near impossible to overcome, even if you do knock down your shots at high efficiency.
Nailing the little things, collectively, will be imperative to the Suns efforts in reversing their fortunes in game two.
These, hopefully inducing solace, are all entities of the game well in the Suns control.
3.) Three-point attempts
The Suns have had their bouts with volume on three-point attempts over the course of this season.
Tinkering with that, being intentional, and having select guys take the opportunities that are set for them — via the big three — is ultra-important to their process, particularly from the role players.
Per quarter three-point attempts from the Suns in game one:
- First Quarter - 1
- Second Quarter - 4
- Third Quarter - 6
- Fourth Quarter - 12
They averaged 32.6 attempts in the regular season, and will need to get said attempts up — especially off the quality looks they can generate — at a much higher volume in this particular series.
The math dynamic in this series does not permit them to take much below 30, especially considering the pace it will likely be played at.
Players like Craig (in a volume manner that he did in round one), Lee, Shamet, (Payne?), then Warren and/or Ross should they get play time, have to be shot-ready and take those looks.
Sound On— Stephen PridGeon ☯️ (@StayTrueSDot3) May 1, 2023
Let's talk about some of the defensive slippage in communication, positioning, awareness, & process that we saw in stretches of G1, for Phoenix pic.twitter.com/hTyrQklg3S
What to Watch For’s in Game 2
- Small ball from the Suns in non-Jokic minutes
- Collective glass crashing and pursuit of the ball
- Okogie to so easily detaching from Murray; Suns picking up help activity
- Ayton defending closer to and at the level of the screen — blending coverages on Murray
- Ayton having more usage in the minutes when Jokic is off (screening with more aggressive roles, rim run’s, short-roll playmaking)
- More aggressive Chris Paul
- More mid-post touches for Kevin Durant
- Higher screen’s set from the Suns
- More exit screens used on the second side to occupy the attention of Denver’s low help, as they crept in early and often off the weak corner, condensing the floor — even in Suns empty pick-and-rolls
- Better ball security, and more frenetic and chaos-inducing defensive activity turning the Nuggets over
- Better communication and connectedness on switches and off-script Nuggets movement